When Jadranka Andelić and Dijana Milošević formed DAH Theatre to create the first theater laboratory in the former Yugoslavia in 1991, they had no intention of venturing into the political until they were caught in the civil war of their country. Director Dijana Milošević detailed the start of DAH Theatre in Serbia, their first ten years and showed clips of performances during a lecture called, “The Role of the Artist in the Dark Times.”
“When I started to travel with our work I realized that, in fact, people feel very hopeless and helpless facing the big historical and political circumstances … I decided to start to talk about our experience because I hope I can inspire you a little bit talking about how a handful of people can change things and how even two people make a group and we are not hopeless and we are not helpless as sometimes we think we are,” Milosevic said during her opening.
The public voice during a silenced civil war
“Then until now the name of my country changed four times. So, it’s very interesting when you think about your identity. You were born in one country, then you grew up in another and then you were in your mature years in the third and fourth country.”
The dictator of Yugoslavia at the time of the civil war was Slobodan Milošević, no relation to Milošević of DAH Theatre. The government denied being involved in the war. “Many of us had relatives in different parts of the country and we heard gross things, atrocities were happening and at the same time we lived in the complete silence and public denial and that was very difficult to bear,” Milošević said.
As the state media was controlled and silenced, DAH Theatre felt the need to speak out, she continued. “This is the power of the public voice, that as artists, we have. Even that we were a handful of people, our voice was heard publically because we were artists and we decided to speak through our performance.”
DAH Theatre continued experimenting, working on their acting techniques. Based on poems of Bertolt Brecht, a German poet, playwright and theater director, their first performance, outdoors in front of hundreds of people, was an anti-war performance that targeted denial. After receiving positive reactions from those who witnessed their performance and felt DAH Theatre said what they wanted to say but could not, Milošević and her colleagues wanted to stay in the country even as they faced dangerous circumstances as political dissidents. “We understood that we have very powerful tool[s] to oppose violence and this was the theatre, creation and the incredible privilege of the public voice,” she said.
Wanting to reach a broader audience, they took to the streets and performed outdoors. They performed in the main square of Belgrade as angels in an empty fountain that acted as an amphitheatre. They decided to perform as angels, dressed in black costumes as a sign of mourning, because they felt like they were rejected by society. They believe some angels to be similarly rejected, refusing to pick sides, representing the bridge between ideas and the Earth, life and death.
“Whenever we are personal, we are political because we acted out of our personal, burning need,” Milošević said. “So, the motto of the piece was the words of Bertolt Brecht, ‘Will there be singing in the dark times? Yes, there will be singing–about dark times.’”
The personal growth, struggles of DAH Theatre
Knowing the risk of their public anti-war performance, the government did not fund them. They also received anonymous phone threats, though no harm came to them during their performances.
While they viewed Brecht as their contemporary, DAH Theatre also adopted the words of the French painter Henri Matisse when he said that after World War II, he was proud two World Wars had passed and none of it came into his art. They combined the two mottos of Brecht and Matisse.
DAH Theatre discovered that since they were an independent group not representing their state, they believed it was important to expose artists, scholars and people from different countries to their performances as a means to break from the isolation imposed on Yugoslavia during the war. Traveling abroad became very important to them.
When two actors decided to leave DAH Theatre in the mid-90s, the two directors continued to work every day with only three actresses, enhancing their discipline, which became an asset for the theater group.
“We realized that if we respect our work, then we have the chance that other people will respect our work because everything was against us,” Milošević said. “We were unknown, [a] little group, [had] no financial support in the civil war. So we had hundreds of excuses to stop to work so it was even more important to be even more rigorous, to have really high standards to keep our group strong.”
Creating life and theatre from the ruins
With only three actresses, Milošević asked herself whom these actresses could be and realized that in the war images broad by the media, she would often see women dressed in black amongst the ruins, standing in silence.
“For me, it was [a] very strong image to have those three women that were maybe three actresses that were maybe in the ruins of their homes, of their country, of their inner selves, their lives,” she said.
DAH started to explore the topic of creating life from ruins. They realized that they needed to go outside of their culture and region to gather material for a performance, researching Indian legends, music and paintings as well as the Tibetan legend of the end of the world.
They created the piece during the most violent conflict in the former Yugoslavia. “What to do when you are facing violence and you do not want to be violent yourself?” Milošević asked. “For me, personally, I really realized that we can oppose violence through creation of the sense and for us, to create that piece in that time was a strong way to oppose the violence. “
Due to the possibility of working with theater, Milošević said DAH started to “become experts about silly things. For example, what kind of salt was the best to draw with?”
In 1996, DAH travelled to the United States for the first time, landing in Atlanta. After their performance, people who were Vietnam veterans came up to them and talked about how they were moved. They performed the piece over 90 times.
The seeds of change
Back in the former Yugoslavia, the government continued to pretend they were a democracy and while they held an election, it was falsified. People took to the streets and held peaceful protests.
Milošević spoke about how people opposed the police and military in non-violent ways. “What police and military did not know what to do [with] was with humor and creativity and this is when I discovered the power of humor, that humor can oppose even the most brutal force.”
She detailed how an action to oppose the police was for protestors to bring their own uniforms, such as dressing in soldier’s boots and a funny wig. “And suddenly, the police was surrounded by thousands of people dressed funny and they were totally in shock, they didn’t know what to do with that … And of course we knew that it was dangerous but that was the game, so how to oppose them, how not to give them reasons to attack us,” she said.
Milošević showed an excerpt of the documentary “Belgrade Follies,” (1997) by Goran Markovic, of the nine-day standoff on the main street of Belgrade. The standoff involved thousands of citizens and a small force of police who blocked off the street.
“The picture was we have cordon of police, thousands of people doing different actions… to try peacefully to make them move. And symbolically, it was very important to win that battle so that police has to move and to let protestors to go.”
After that protest, the country had its first Democratic mayor of Belgrade and according to Milošević, “these were the seeds for change.”
“Me and many other people believed that very important seeds were planted at that time thanks to creativity and that those seeds would bear fruits and this is exactly what happened and we had the fall of that regime in 2000. And so with our work, I really believe that we are placing the seeds and as I am speaking here, I believe that some seeds that I’ll place here will grow one day into very beautiful trees and plants.”